If you’ve researched living and working in Japan much at all, you’re sure to have come across the terms honne 本音 (true feelings) and tatemae 建前 (façade). The terms seem to haunt people’s interactions, with some foreigners describing the concepts as the ultimate barrier to understanding.
“Japanese people,” they claim, ” re so controlled by tatemae that you never know what they really mean!” You might find some call this a “culture of deceit,” or even imply that Japanese people can’t be trusted because of tatemae. This is all nonsense. It’s an exaggeration at best, and simple lies at worst.
In essence, these two terms simply refer to the way human beings often behave differently in different social situations. None of use speak to our bosses the same way we speak to our friends or mothers. No one acts the same in public as we do in private. We often prefer a white lie to a truth that could be socially uncomfortable or hurtful. All of us, no matter what culture we come from, follow a pattern of honne and tatemae.
Why All the Fuss?
I think the blame lies in a tendency to focus so much on the naming of this phenomenon, that some think more about dictionaries and words, than what actions really occur.
One example that reflects tatemae is a tendency for people here to always say yes to invitations, but not actually coming.
The exchange might go like this:
Person A: “We should really get together sometime!”
Japanese Person B: “Yeah, we should!”
Person A: “Great! Let me know when!”
But person B never does.
The tatemae-analysts will then focus on how person B was lying, and never actually intended to get together. They will discuss the intricate social webs that mean Japanese people feel unable to actually say what they feel in these complex situations.
But in reality, who would say “No, I don’t really want to get together with you because you always leave me with the bill.” Or “No way, you never stop complaining about your work and I hate the negativity.” Or “Ugh, seriously? Again? Your breath STINKS.” Or “My social anxiety is going to keep me from contacting you, so, sorry.”No one would say any of that!
Guess what? We’re all practitioners of tatemae.
What about in the Workplace?
Japanese offices are often operating under strict social codes, and navigating these successfully often requires people to not speak their minds. Thus, tatemae, that public face that we all wear to some degree, becomes the rule. Which, as I have said, is also true in other cultures! I certainly never told my boss at the call center that I hated it when he came over to my desk and asked me if I was working hard or hardly working every day. Because he was my boss.
For a non-Japanese person, this unwritten code of conduct is also wrapped up in a new language and a new culture, so it feels like something totally alien. It feels like everything is hidden behind a façade, so we sometimes assume people are just hiding things from us. This is almost always a mistake. Our difficulties with working in an office outside of our own culture can never be that simple. There are all kinds of reasons for frustration in the workplace—linguistic, cultural, social and plain old personal—and almost none of them are actually because of tatemae.
To put it another way, let’s forget the words themselves. Think of an office employee, for example a woman in her late 20s, who is living far from her hometown in the big city. She’s working in a tech company and hopes for a promotion. Her newly promoted manager often comes by her desk and jokes around. She laughs at his jokes, and gets his tea when he asks for it. Then, later, you and she are talking, and she mentions how much she dislikes her manager and wishes he would get his own tea. She pretends to like his jokes and does what he wants because she wants to be in his good graces.
Is this deceit? Is it a lie? Of course not. This is a totally common way of behaving in cultures all over the world. You can call it putting on a good face, or tatemae, or simply grinning and bearing it: but it’s still natural human behavior.
What about You?
If you find yourself feeling your office frustrations are all because of tatemae, then I have a simple recommendation: Get to know your coworkers better. Make personal connections. Talk to people outside the office to build personal relationships so that you are more likely to hear what people actually think, and learn to navigate the social web of the office in exactly the same way that your Japanese coworkers do it. Don’t take misunderstandings personally. You might find that things get easier once you’ve joined your team in a more natural, more Japanese way, and that illusion of tatemae dissolves into simply getting along with everyone. You might even say, you’ve become part of the Wa.
Just remember, your coworkers are people just like you. Try understanding them as people, before you ascribe all their behaviors to vague cultural concepts.